Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Practice of "Othering"

Over the past several decades, discussing "the other" and "othering" has emerged as the dominant practice in the broad academic field known as the humanities. Given the dominance of the Western powers over the past half millennium, this discourse tends to focus on "white Protestant patriarchal imperialism." In other words, us white boys are taken to task for centuries of oppression of "others."

WASPs of my generation have various reactions to the preoccupation with deconstruction of "white male hegemony" in today's humanities classrooms. Many become defensive, others get angry or simply dismiss such critiques. Some submit shamefully and silently, while others embrace these critiques as "allies" of "others."

Our brains are design to stereotype and generalize. Such simplifications are necessary to navigate a complex world. Psychological research employing the controversial Implicit Association Test has suggested that we instinctively react to people who look differently from us (often with mistrust or fear), no matter how egalitarian or "colorblind" we consider ourselves to be.

Throughout history, people all over the world have compounded this effect by inventing all sorts of myths that frame these perceived differences as signs of fundamental inferiority. In our Western context, this has typically meant that "others" are compared to the white male "norm."

From a biological point of view, racial and ethnic differences are elusive. Geneticists agree that there is no concrete biological basis for race; no "black genes" or "white genes" to be identified. So if race isn't real, why do humanities scholars seem to be focusing on it more than ever?

One answer is that they spend a lot more time than the rest of us thinking critically about our cultural heritage. "Real" or not, the concept of race has been made determinative throughout much of human history and remains powerful today. Historical and cultural differences continue to be exaggerated as fundamental as we "other" one another.

The arbitrary power of this "othering" process is demonstrated in Paul Cowan's book An Orphan in History.

Cowan (1940-88), a journalist, was born into a radically assimilated Jewish family. His father Lou rose to prominence as the president of CBS-TV just as the medium was taking off. Lou Cowan, the grandson of an orthodox Lithuanian rabbi, decided he didn't want to be "the other." So he changed his name from "Cohen" to "Cowan" and fashioned a WASPy culture for his family, one that included Christmas and pork chops while excluding all distinctly Jewish practices.

As a result, Paul Cowan (a blonde) didn't look or feel all that different from the WASP elite surrounding him. That is, until he arrived at the famous Episcopal boarding school Choate in the mid 1950s, where he was thoroughly "othered."

Cowan painfully relates how classmates would berate him with Jewish stereotypes, slurs and mock Yiddish accents. His lack of understanding of his heritage made him particularly defenseless, but Cowan speculates that his Jewish peers felt similarly helpless in the face of such prejudice. "Since none of us had the courage to exchange stories of the anti-Semitism we had experienced, each of us felt we were being tormented because we were personally deficient."

Cowan's story illustrates that "othering" has historically been much more than the rationalization and extension of an innate fear of difference. His tormentors propped up a false and fragile sense of superiority by reinforcing social boundaries which kept them in and Paul out...His lack of physical distinctiveness and his father's strenuous efforts to sacrifice his religious and cultural heritage for the sake of inclusion notwithstanding.

Thankfully, such blatant bigotry is generally no longer socially acceptable, particularly in our self-consciously egalitarian educational institutions. But in-group power continues to be wielded in ways subtle and unintentional as well as forceful and blatant. And while we have come a long way since Cowan's school days, white Christian men like myself still hold disproportionate power and stand to benefit from the universal practice of "othering."

Still, there are certainly excesses in the practice of critiquing white patriarchy. Sometimes it seems that there is so much deconstruction going on in the humanities that there is little time left for the construction of new collective orientations. Great emphasis is placed on difference rather than focusing on common features of the human experience. And our universities are increasingly fragmented with the proliferation of "_________ Studies" departments.

Personally, I often wonder if such developments only divide us more. But when I read the stories of people like Paul Cowan and the black women represented by the Womanist scholars I am currently studying, I grasp an inkling of the pain of exclusion and witness the healing power of such assertions and celebrations of difference.

An Orphan in History traces Cowan's efforts to recover and affirm the Jewish heritage tossed aside in the face of exclusion. He commits himself to learning and fulfilling the orthodox practices of his people with the support of his WASP wife Rachel (who eventually converted to Judaism). The shame of his youth is replaced with an immense pride in the spiritual, cultural and communal richness of his heritage. The tension and anxiety surrounding his identity is resolved. Cowan emerges as a whole Jew, a whole American, a whole man.

Whether explicitly and implicitly, we perceive some as "like us" and others as "different." It is a fact of life. It doesn't make much sense to waste energy feeling guilty about it. After all, there are instincts and inherited categories of difference which influence these perceptions.

But all of us are faced with an ethical choice of exaggerating such differences or attempting to transcend them through an emphasis on the reality of our common humanity. Such inclusiveness does not require us to sacrifice our subcultural identities and attachments. Rather we must recognize and celebrate difference in order to more fully appreciate the richness of our common humanity.

We can imagine our identity as a series of expanding concentric circles. We are all members of families, organizations, communities, traditions, cultures, nations, humanity, planet Earth...

How do you resist "othering"? How can we identify strongly with some without distancing others in hurtful ways? How can we best move forward with greater unity and equality of opportunity? How do you see our educational institutions as helping or hindering in this process?

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